2017, Archives, October 2017, The MFA Years


I’m lying on my couch, an air mattress, adjusting my elbows, which every few minutes scrub a crumb—probably KIND-brand cinnamon oat cluster granola. I was accepted into the Michener Center for Writers (after being accidentally rejected) in March and moved to Austin on August 9th, floating around for a month before landing a spacious apartment close to campus. But, in Austin, unless you want to live in one of those industrial, small-town-sized apartment complexes (you know, with a pool and visitor parking that’s never open anyway) you’re getting an unfurnished spot, and now that I have a real bed and felt too lazy to deflate this mattress, which was eight dollars at Wal-Mart, I have a couch, too.

I was born in Puerto Rico and raised, mostly, in Orlando, Florida. My family is pretty much all Nuyorican, and the other side is all Cuban, all living in Miami since 1966, when they won “the lottery”—which is not 300 million dollars taxed at 82% but more like a get-out-of-Cuba-free card.

But that was a long time ago, way before I was even a beforethought. (I feel goofy saying “planned”.) I only applied to two programs—here and Rutgers-Newark, where I was waitlisted—and now, two months into my three-year tenure at UT, I already feel justified in my decision. In fact, I wasn’t going to apply to any programs this year. Most of 2016 I spent on a Fulbright in Valparaiso, Chile, which hugs the Pacific coast of South America: Valpo, city of street art and neon hills; Chile, wine country, el país de los poetas (the country of poets). I thought a year of work experience would be just as helpful, and maybe it would’ve been, but my friend Alexis tore into me the day before the application window closed, convincing me to spend sixty-five bucks (can’t we get these things waived?) and a whole afternoon constructing my personal statement and writing sample, speed-emailing my professors (whom I was cognitively dissonant enough to ask for rec letters from months before) doing nothing but repeating to myself, “Is this the best you’ve got?” which also summarizes my “process,” whatever that means. (Do you ever feel like some poets talk endlessly about their process, endlessly ignoring how that only works for them?)

In any case, the journey here is over, and I can’t stop freaking out about how much I love everything about this place. My reasons for coming here had everything to do with faculty, location, and community. As a poet, I admire Dean Young, Lisa Olstein, and Roger Reeves. (Dean teaches my poetry workshop, Lisa a studies class on sixties poets, and I’ll take Roger next semester.) Also, I am a city guy. In Chile, I had no car, and New York is my favorite place in the world; Austin has a vivacious scene with art and culture and breakfast tacos dripping all over you and from every direction.

But probably the biggest reason I’m happy to be here is that for so long—since I graduated from Florida State in 2015—I lacked a community of poets I could engage in discussion with, and all of us here can’t seem to stop talking about everything from the idea of accessibility in contemporary poetry to Sylvia Plath’s controversial ownership of a certain cultural lexicon. (Our class on her book Ariel ended at 3:30 pm Tuesday, after which Roger Reeves read [also amazing], and at 1:30 am a handful of us were still at Spiderhouse discussing her.) This community is full of sweethearts and every single one of them has a distinctive style. All of us want to learn from all of us. This ego-sapped, inclusive circle of writers gives me more than hope: they reassure me that poetry has a collective importance; that, even if not everyone will be a poet, everyone I talk to talks to one, so the ways poetry changes me will be evident in those interactions, will be challenged by discourse with other poets, and if by the time I finish speaking to a non-poet, they say, “Damn, poetry isn’t what I thought it was,” I’ve done my job.

Poetry is so small it touches everything. None of us gets the whole picture, only a single resplendent tile on a grandiose kaleidoscope, and as I lie here on my air-filled couch, picking sticky oats off my skin, I can’t help but think—even though I don’t believe in luck—how lucky I am to be surrounded by different ways of seeing.